Will Walk

Chemical Screams

A beautfiul description of Thacker Pass by Will Falk | Feb 7, 2021

If you look across Thacker Pass from the shoulders of the Montana mountains, the land looks like a quilt the Double-H mountains in the south pulled up to their chin to keep warm during the cold winter nights. The hills that roll towards the valley floor are checkered with patterns. Much of the quilt, where the old-growth sagebrush persists, is an unbroken viridescent pattern. On the edges of the sagebrush, flaxen, rectangular patches of invasive grasses have sprung up from the wreckage created by the Bureau of Land Management’s clear-cutting chains. Separating the green and yellow patches, are lines of muddy brown where dirt roads have been built.

In places – my favorite places – the quilt bunches up into folds.

Those folds conceal nooks, crannies, alcoves, and cubbyholes where pygmy rabbits hide from prairie falcons, pronghorn antelope hide from rifle scopes, and I hide from the wind, sun, and the near-impossibility of stopping Lithium Americas’ open pit lithium mine.

Max and I received a second 24-hour notice to vacate Thacker Pass from BLM and the other lawyers we’ve been working with strongly advised us to heed this notice. They warned us that, if we were arrested, a federal judge would likely only release us from jail on the condition that we not return to Thacker Pass. If a judge released us on these conditions, to return to Thacker Pass would risk another arrest and more criminal charges filed against us. If we were arrested a second time, a judge would likely keep us incarcerated until the criminal charges filed against us were resolved.

We decided that being arrested when construction was not immediately imminent was not strategic – especially if it meant keeping us permanently away from Thacker Pass. Meanwhile, reinforcements had arrived who could hold down the occupation site and ensure a continuous presence at Thacker Pass. So, we decided it would be a good time to take a few days to shower and do some laundry.

The afternoon before we had to leave, I wandered down into Thacker Pass’ deepest refuge, into the rolling sagebrush hills that form the warmest section of the quilt – the same rolling hills, the same section of the quilt that will be ripped out for an open pit mine if Lithium Americas has its way.

But, I found no refuge there.

I took a dirt road still covered with the kind of old snow that preserves animal tracks the best. Rabbits, mice, kangaroo rats, sage grouses, red foxes, and coyotes had all found this dirt road useful before me. Seeing my clumsy, heavy boot tracks next to the artwork these creatures created with their feet embarrassed me. Every twenty yards or so, I stopped to study the tracks and to visualize the animal who had left them. When I saw rabbit and coyote tracks converge in the crimson of blood spilled over the cream of snow, the voices of coyotes a few hills away protested my voyeurism. Sacred predation, they insisted, is an intimate thing.

As I wandered, I tried to imagine what it would feel like if a member of each of the species represented by the tracks in the snow walked with me – shoulder to shoulder – to a grand, interspecies council organized to discuss how to stop the mine.

I came at last to the edge of an area that had been cleared for one of Lithium Americas’ exploratory water wells. The tracks disappeared before the clearing surrounding the well. The sagebrush seemed suspicious. The mud that squelched under my boots, upon determining the species my track belonged to, was eager to spit my feet out. I couldn’t blame the sagebrush or the mud. The last humans who had walked here were probably the same humans who bored a hole deep into the earth to learn how much water they could pump up from the earth and how many poisons they could pump down from the mine.

As I faced the sagebrush, they appeared to expect something from me. At first, I did not know what. Then, the harsh sounds of a heavy truck straining to haul a back-hoe up Highway 293, about a quarter-mile from where I stood, shattered the silence. The sage branches quivered. They trembled with fear.

It made me wonder: If sagebrush fear the trucks, do they know what Lithium Americas plans to do?

I began to narrate my premonitions. I saw a future where a line of trucks stretched for miles from Thacker Pass down Highway 293, east towards Orovada. The trucks screamed and screeched as they heaved back-hoes, excavators, tractors, and loads of the sulfuric acid needed to burn lithium from the earth. The air was thick with diesel exhaust. The ground shook as the machines thundered over the hills. Rabbits, mice, and rats scampered west out of the Pass through sagebrush roots only to find a new land already cleared for the hay fields in King’s Valley.

The activity so stressed a golden eagle mother that the eggshell surrounding her baby cracked prematurely because it was too thinly formed. Sage grouse awkwardly leapt from the valley floor towards the foothills, but they starved to death when they could not find enough habitat on the heights. Local coyotes – ever the survivors – howled at the horror of it all, tucked their tails, and, slunk over the ridgelines wondering when the new, pale humans would learn to listen to their trickster lessons.

The vision faded and I was left looking at the sagebrush that had gathered around me to listen to the terror I predicted. I second-guessed my decision to tell them. Perhaps it would have been best to let them enjoy the time they have left, I thought. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

As I faced those plants who I had just warned about the destruction that was coming, I wanted to run all the way back up the road to where my car was parked and drive as far away from Thacker Pass and the likelihood of her destruction as possible.

But, I didn’t run. I couldn’t run.

I don’t know if it was my own sense of honor or the mud sucking my feet into Thacker Pass that prevented me from fleeing. Finally, I asked aloud: “What do you need me to do?”

In response, my body turned wooden. My limbs became rigid. The hair on my arms and legs stood up like leaves drinking in the sun. I felt the machines through my roots first. My toes and fingers clinched at clumps of twitching soil. I felt vibrations through the bark that became my skin. Something big – bigger than anything I knew existed – was coming my way.

Then, I tasted the screams of my relatives on the breeze and through the root networks. They came as chemical messages – what scientists call “the release of volatile organic compounds” – that my sagebrush kin send through their communities when they are wounded. The screams were distant – just a trickle, at first. I started drinking different minerals to try to change my chemical composition to make myself displeasing to whoever was eating my family. But, then the shrieks saturated my surroundings. I frantically searched for new minerals, dug for deeper waters, and synthesized as much light as I could to create the strongest terpenoid compounds and volatile oils that I had used to protect myself before.

The chemical screams were being drowned out by the approaching, mechanical thunder.

I wished I was as fast as the pronghorn who sometimes browsed my branches. There was a moment when the thunder was strongest, the wind stopped, and the sun failed.

My legs cracked, my arms snapped, and the ripping began. My insides tore apart in a series of pops. I tried to grip the earth with the roots I had left but the dirt slipped through my grasp. With one final pop, everything went blank. There were no more minerals to taste. No sunlight to absorb. No water to drink. And, the chemical screams fell silent.

Back in my human body and soaking with sweat despite the cold temperature, I found myself clawing at my own guts as if they really had been torn out. When the wind mercifully blew this horror away, I found myself face-to-face again with the sagebrush.

“Stop them,” they said.

Photo by Max Wilbert


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13 thoughts on “Chemical Screams”

  1. To call this “a beautiful description” belies the horror that underlies it. Can we describe a witness’s account of a mass murder as “beautiful” — however well written — and even if it hasn’t actually happened yet?
    By a trick of the language, though, I have to agree. Will’s writing here truly is beautiful. Thank you, Will!
    I’ll post it now, but how do we get this better circulated? Do we have someone working on that?

  2. I respectfully disagree. If we begin indulging fantasies like “sacred predation,” we’re sinking into the same kind of crackpot religious rationalization that allows industrialists to describe their rape of Earth as “improvements,” and industrialism itself as “God’s plan for a better world.”

    Let’s stop romanticizing nature, and call it like it is. Predation is an ugly, evolutionary necessity for some animals — genocide using the “necessity” defense. It’s only indirect connection to divinity is that it utterly disproves creationism. No creator but a monster would control animal populations by having 98% of wild creatures (a biology professor’s estimate) die of starvation or predation, rather than passing quietly in their sleep. It makes perfect sense, however, as the solution devised by survival of the fittest.

    Considered objectively, the nature we like to romanticize is merely the equilibrium that occurs when competing forces and organisms operate in the environment of chaos that is our universe. In absolute terms, it’s a nightmare of violence — storms, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, disease, and predators — where forces and organisms all follow the path of least resistance for as long as they can, and then die or are transformed into something else.

    But we nonetheless cherish and defend it, because it has achieved a delicate balance, in which life, love, nurture, and compassion achieve relatively brief moments of harmony, beauty, and peace between the inevitable disasters. And between those moments, we discover a kind of solace, in the realization that for each death and daily horror, a child is born, a bird is hatched, fish spawn, insects mate, and the optimism of youthful innocence tries once again to beat the odds.

    There’s nothing any more sacred about predation than there is about the pain of childbirth, or a periodic swarm of locusts. They’re all part of the ultimately hopeless struggle to survive. And they’re all infinitely preferable to the criminal imbalance of industrial civilization, which would rationalize mass extinction for another year of corporate profits.

    1. @Mark
      We obviously have totally different perspectives here. While our goals of preventing harm to the natural world and its natural balance are the same, for me this is more spiritual (i.e., love for the natural world and everything that lives there) than anything. I agree with you that it’s about balance, but denigrating spiritual attitudes and feelings does not advance our cause. If humans don’t greatly change their attitudes toward all life, including the Earth itself, the kind of destruction that is the subject of this essay will continue apace. Advancement/evolution of spiritual attitudes, like considering life and its natural functions such as predation to be sacred, is exactly what we should be aiming for.

      Furthermore, one of the problems with humans is that they’ve allowed their intellect to dominate their thinking, which causes a severe perversion in humans’ perception of reality. The intellect is merely one of multiple ways to view the world, and the view from it is only accurate if limited and conditioned by other areas of the mind like love, wisdom, empathy, and gut feelings/instincts. To view everything through the intellect is similar to failing to see the forest for the trees.

      There’s a huge difference between on one hand considering natural processes like predation to be sacred, and on the other hand “religious rationalization that allows industrialists to describe their rape of Earth as ‘improvements,’ and industrialism itself as ‘God’s plan for a better world.’” The former is merely having a proper humble and appreciative attitude toward life and the universe, the latter is delusional rationalization for doing whatever you think benefits you while ignoring the great harms that you cause to the rest of life.

      In order for problems like the one written about here to be solved, humans need to evolve spiritually. That’s the only way that they’ll stop wanting to destroy everything natural in order to supposedly benefit themselves. Cold hard intellectual arguments won’t work, just as they don’t in politics (see George Lakoff’s work, for example). The vast majority of people act and behave based on their feelings, not on intellectual facts. Therefore, calling things like natural predation “sacred” is just fine, and the Earth and everything natural here would be very well served if humans were to adopt that attitude.

      Finally, it is unknowable to puny beings like humans who/what created the universe & the life in it and how that was done. Complaining by calling whatever unknowable being and/or force created all this a “monster” because you don’t have a proper perspective of life is just silly. If you think that life could have evolved better, please explain how. Beings need to eat in order to nourish themselves, natural ecological balance is kept by, among other things, starvation & predation, and I don’t see any way around that. Sure, we can fantasize a world where all beings die painlessly in their sleep, just as I can fantasize that all animals are friends & that I can pet lions and zebra while they hang out together. But none of this is reality, so you have to change your perspective to fit reality, not rail against creation because you don’t like the way it was done.

  3. Someone somewhere is tweaking a virus that will be both fast and deadly. And super contagious. Most of humanity will be wiped out. The remaining species will be saved and the planet, Beautiful humans will perish with the dross. Please hurry hurry.

  4. First and foremost, Will’s description of communication with plants is very similar to what I’ve been told by Native medicine men. THIS is what true evolution and human advancement is, not things like cars, cell phones, or invading Mars or the moon. Great essay in this regard, it perfectly communicates my point of view about human destruction of the natural world. This is the oneness realization that some spiritual disciplines attempt to achieve: we are all just parts of a whole, and individualism is just an illusion.

    That said, I do have a comment here, though it’s about what was not said: “rectangular patches of invasive grasses have sprung up from the wreckage created by the Bureau of Land Management’s clear-cutting chains.”

    Clearcutting plants per se does not cause invasive grasses to grow. Invasive grasses have to be brought to the area by humans, and in the western U.S., those humans were RANCHERS. In Earth First we used to call BLM the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. BLM is the primary government force in support of ranching, an unnatural and illegitimate activity that has caused the most environmental and ecological harm in the western U.S.

    I realize that the Thacker Pass issue is about mining, but I don’t remember ever seeing anything in DGR about the great harms caused by cattle & sheep grazing. DGR should stop ignoriing the worst environmental problem in the western U.S. because Lierre Keith has a beef addiction or for any other reason. I realize that people love their burgers & steaks, but this is no different than people loving their industrial benefits like cars. If you don’t confront the biggest environmental problem in the western U.S., what’s the point?

  5. No offense, Jeff, but you’ve created a circular argument — condemning intellect and praising spirituality, while using your intellect to rationalize your spirituality.

    You can imagine whatever you want. But that doesn’t make it so. Finding something “sacred” in a coyote ripping an innocent rabbit apart is as obscene a rationalization as indigenous hunters conducting a ceremony, to “honor” the deer they killed for dinner.

    Fantasizing coyotes putting religious values on predation is as silly and self-serving as pretending Earth has a female gender, and that “God” is male. It doesn’t hurt anything to project human superstitions onto nature, so long as we don’t do it to help us rationalize exploitation.

    The world we live in evolved as it did because nature follows the path of least resistance. And humans invented myths to explain things we don’t understand, and to make us feel better about the fact that there is no moral order to the horrors we encounter in life. Coyotes don’t have the need to rationalize and invent spirits. They just accept things the way they are (and, as a result, have far fewer psychological problems than we have).

    I have a spirituality, too, in recognition of things I have experienced that have no rational explanation. The mistake people make is in fantasizing explanations for things we don’t know, based on the few spiritual things we do know.

    For instance, I once dreamed I was in a junkyard, when an uncle I hadn’t seen or communicated with in 13 years (and never dreamed of, before or since) suddenly appeared on an old bicycle under a grove of trees, just outside the junkyard fence. He didn’t speak, but had a contented smile on his face, as if he had something profound to tell me, but couldn’t say. As he sat there staring at me, the clouds parted, and a beam of sunlight shone down around my uncle, but nothing else. Then he waved goodbye and rode away.

    I woke up immediately, and made a mental note to tell my mother about the dream. Before I did so, however, I got a note from her in the mail. A few hours before my dream, my uncle (who had suffered from schizophrenia for 20 years) committed suicide. Only later did I pick up the symbolism: While I was in the junkyard and shadows of mortal life, my uncle was in a beautiful forest, in the light.

    Ancient priests no doubt had similar experiences, and inferred from them the existence of a creator god, heaven, angels, and hell. All I inferred is that there is a spiritual existence after life, and that communication between here and there is sometimes possible.

    We can believe whatever gets us through the night. But let’s not tell ourselves that coyotes think the violent termination of innocent life is a sacrament.

    1. @Mark
      No one said that coyotes believe that predation is sacred. This is about human characterization of that act. My point was that characterizing natural predation as “sacred” is far better than the modern human and totally disconnected from nature squeamish attitude, which results in people killing predators, an act that should never be done.

      I have no problem with people not attaching any attitudes toward predation or anything else in the natural world, so long as they don’t do any harm to the natural world. I don’t believe in much except that all life in the universe is sacred and all of it is equally important, and “sacred” is not how I would have described a coyote eating a rabbit. But your attack on that characterization is the same as I’ve heard from unevolved self-centered anti-environmentalists, and it really struck a nerve. There’s nothing wrong or monstrous about the way that life works, it just IS. While prey animals who get eaten suffer the pain of that predation, in the big picture this is just natural processes functioning properly, and in fact natural predation supports the natural balance of population control. I see no point in attacking someone who thinks this is sacred.

      As to my argument, of course it’s intellectual. All speech is of the intellect, there’s no other way to argue something. I can’t make you feel what I feel by osmosis, I can only express it in words.

  6. Mark, I totally get your reaction to the “sacred predation” bit, and appreciate your offsetting description of “the criminal imbalance of industrial civilization”.

    That said, calling it “like it is”, as you say, does not require us to interpret and then invalidate Will’s experience as romanticism and hence delusional. Describing predation as “ugly” and nature itself as “a nightmare of violence” is no less of a human point of view than evoking the sacred. Likewise, conjuring the image of a “coyote ripping an innocent rabbit apart” and calling it “obscene” is, again, no more objective and just as delusional as any other projection. Which we prefer is of no consequence, but I, personally, prefer the poetry of Will’s writing.

    In my experience, the closer I get to nature the less I judge it as “good” or “bad”, and the wonder and oneness I feel is closer to a spiritual experience than to your logical pragmatism. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Will, but his writing here may be a case of “you have to have been there”.

    1. @Jim
      Totally agree. Eastern mysticism teaches that “good” and “bad” are false dualities, just different sides of the same coin. Nature and natural processes are what they are, they’re not good or bad, though they are necessary for ecological balance. Destruction seems to be bad, but is necessary in order to have creation (see the goddess Shiva, for example).

  7. I agree that Will’s poetic writing has a kind of beauty. But there’s a big difference between using metaphors to illustrate abstract points, and literally believing that rivers speak to us, etc. The former is art, and the latter is psychosis.

    I enjoyed his writing at first. But after awhile, the constant barrage of talking animals, rivers, and rocks begins to sound like the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. At times, I have also speculated as to whether plants have sensory functions analogous to consciousness. But I don’t pretend to know what they feel — much less that they’re consciously communicating it to me.

    We humans have way more intelligence than we need, and we consequently spend a lot of time in our own fantasy worlds — a big part of which is anthropomorphizing. And we imagine animals doing the same thing, though there isn’t a shred of evidence that they do, and the simple fact of brain size to indicate that they don’t.

    I’ve had dozens of cats, several dogs, and a few rabbits over the years. And while I admit that I talk to them, I grudgingly admit that there isn’t much specific information being exchanged. Dogs learn a few words, and often have a sense of humor. Cats pick up on tone of voice, and understand affection, play, and when play time is over. Rabbits know when to fear, and sometimes when fear isn’t necessary. But that’s about it.

    Projecting feelings onto inanimate objects, however, is about as scientific as believing that witches control the weather, and that black cats are agents of the devil.

    1. Well, I too have communicated with a creek (once) and with plants (one very strong communication that facts bore out). Not in intellectual terms that I know how to describe, but communication nonetheless. The two most noticeable times this happened it was unexpected and not initiated by me, but I also have no doubt about it.

      If you are totally left-brained and live only in the intellectual/hard science world, none of this makes sense to you, and I understand that. But some of us, including traditional indigenous people still living in the natural world instead of the modern one, live in a different world and have other experiences. A major fault of being too intellectual is that you think that you know or can know everything. As was continually repeated in a German science fiction series, the world is an ocean and our knowledge a mere drop. Much better to take a humble attitude and realize that there is much that the intellect cannot know, understand, or explain.

  8. I probably shouldn’t have started this thread, because it’s descended into semantics, and to arguing points we fundamentally agree on, but express in different ways.

    The animist perspective (that animals, plants, rocks, soil, air, and water all have the right to a peaceful existence, with as little disturbance as possible) is the only thing really protecting nature, in the few places industry hasn’t already degraded or destroyed. My only objection is to blurring the line between metaphor and reality, and cultivating a belief that, for instance, rivers literally “speak” to us, as opposed to imagining what they might say if they did.

    All of the creator religions have descended into the former, by inventing gods and fabricating mystical explanations for things we don’t understand. The difference, of course, is that civilized religions did it to justify human exploitation, while uncivilized religions did it to honor natural truths. The “rights” of a free-flowing stream, for instance, are self-evidently true, because not damming a stream protects it and everything that interacts with it. So, to that extent, native myths about streams having “spirits” are okay, because they reflect a truth in ways that don’t require an intellectual grasp of physics and ecology.

    All I was trying to point out is that we should remember that myths are human inventions, and that we shouldn’t succumb to superstitions — such as teaching that earthquakes are caused by “gods” stomping the ground because we didn’t sacrifice any virgins to celebrate the sun god’s birthday, or whatever. In other words, it’s better to keep things simple and literal. Mythology is a slippery slope.

    1. I can’t tell whether we agree. What I’m saying is that other species DO communicate, and some people with enough empathy can understand them. Of course they don’t communicate in any human language or intellectual manner. Saying that those of us who have experienced this communication are delusional or making things up is just plain wrong. My experiences with this have been basically feelings, but it’s beyond that and I can’t explain it any more than an ant could explain how human politics works.

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